Malcolm Gladwell on Why the Best Decision-Makers Are a Little Bit Irrational

“If [we were all] entirely rational decision-makers . . . people would never get married, they wouldn’t start any businesses, and we would all be single dentists.”

Malcolm Gladwell is an internationally bestselling author, the host of the Revisionist History podcast, and a curator of the Next Big Idea Club. Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of eleven books, the host and co-creator of the Emmy-winning PBS/BBC series How We Got To Now, and the host of the American Innovations podcast. He recently sat down with Malcolm at Betaworks Studios in New York City to discuss insights from his latest book, the Next Big Idea Club Official Selection, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most.

Malcolm: The psychologist Roy Baumeister has a lovely phrase—it’s something like, “a useful degree of delusion.” When you look at happy couples, for example, and you ask them about their spouse, you discover that their image of their spouse is not grounded in reality. They think their spouse is far more attractive than they actually are, or far more intelligent than they actually are, devoid of all sorts of flaws, et cetera. They are deluded, but they are deluded in a lovely and useful way.

You can make the same observation, of course, about entrepreneurs. If an entrepreneur was rational, they wouldn’t start a company, because most companies fail. If you’re rational, you would become an accountant, or go to dentistry school. People are always going to need to have their teeth fixed, and it’s a steady income.

So if [we were all] entirely rational decision-makers, wouldn’t we have suboptimal outcomes? People would never get married, they wouldn’t start any businesses, and we would all be single dentists.

Steven: Yeah, I think that’s probably right. But I wouldn’t describe what I’m arguing for in this book as a purely rational process. The word that keeps coming up in the book again and again is “diversity”—trying to approach the problem you’re wrestling with from diverse angles, having a team of people that are analyzing it from different perspectives, challenging yourself to build alternative stories about how things could turn out.

Because the flip side of that irrational exuberance and confidence is overconfidence and confirmation bias—you get real excited about an idea and jump into it, and it turns out you missed something important. So a lot of what I write about is trying to actually have wider, weirder perspectives on the problem you’re looking at.

One of the examples is scenario planning, this technique that was developed in the ’70s largely for business, but it’s really a storytelling exercise. You’re confronting this big choice—like launching a new product—and you tell three different stories about how it might pan out: One version where things get better, one where things get worse, and one where things get weird. The exercise of trying to imagine that weird future, even if it doesn’t happen, opens you up to new possibilities, or seeing things that you might not have seen. That doesn’t strike me as a [purely] rational process—it’s deliberative, it’s creative, it’s a narrative process.

The other technique that Gary Klein developed—which you wrote about in Blink as well—is the pre-mortem, in which you’ve decided on the path you’re going to go down, and everybody is excited about it. Then you’re told that in two years, the decision you’re about to make turns out to be an utter failure, a complete catastrophe. [So the challenge is to] tell the story of how that catastrophe happened.

That exercise turns out to be a much more effective way to get people to think about the decision they’re about to make, instead of just saying, “Hey, we’re about to make this choice. Do you see any flaws?” When you ask people to answer that question, they’re like, “No, it’s great. Let’s go!” But when you force them to tell the story about how it all goes south, they end up being more perceptive.

So to me, that’s about widening your field of vision. It’s not about a fully rational process.

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